Sports leagues and teams across the country have bet big on social media in recent years, spending millions of dollars to install powerful wireless networks in arenas so that fans can instantly post tweets and selfies that double as grass-roots marketing.
But two new video apps have alarmed some sports executives, who worry they threaten to undermine the professional leagues’ exclusive hold on images by streaming pictures live on the Internet to anyone who wants to watch.
Though not designed specifically for sports, the apps, Meerkat and Periscope, mean touchdowns, buzzer beaters, and other action that television networks pay huge sums to broadcast — and which cable and satellite subscribers write fat monthly checks to watch — could be shown for free by the guy with an iPhone in Section 12.
In one early example, a spectator at the highly anticipated boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao this month used Periscope to share his view of a fight that cost at least $89.95 on pay-per-view TV. Dozens of others trained their wobbly Periscope lenses on the bout as it played out on their living room televisions.
That sort of bootlegging could cause big problems in a sports economy in which TV rights often represent the bulk of team and league income. The NFL, for example, draws about $6 billion of its $9.2 billion in annual revenue from TV deals.
The irony is the apps stoking the fears run on the same smartphones that have been welcomed at athletic venues for several years and that run faster thanks to the high-speed Wi-Fi now available in many arenas. The Patriots, for example, installed a wireless network at Gillette Stadium in 2012 that was specifically designed to accommodate streaming. The team, however, expected fans to use it for watching replays and highlights on an app created by the Patriots, not for sharing live videos of their own creation.
“This is one of those disruptive events that folks have been predicting for a long time, alongside the unbundling of cable packages,” said Karen Weaver, a professor of sports management at Drexel University who has studied media and technology. “It’s another way for consumers to exercise their ability to see what they want to see.”
Meerkat and Periscope, both free to download and use, work in essentially the same way. Users open the app and point their smartphone cameras at whatever interests them. The footage is automatically streamed live over the Internet and made available to either the public or to a specific set of followers.
For now, at least, the quality of amateur live streams can’t compare with those of professional telecasts by the likes of ESPN and NBC. Grainy, shaky footage from a single vantage point would seem unlikely to steal many viewers away from watching a high-definition production with a dozen camera angles. And besides, Periscope videos are designed to vanish in 24 hours.
Yet the National Hockey League, in the midst of the Stanley Cup playoffs, is so concerned about the apps that in April it sent a memo to every team emphasizing that both are subject to existing restrictions on live video shown by anyone except TV rights holders. The NHL called special attention to journalists’ streaming of pre- and post-game interviews, which it said is prohibited.
The NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball have similar policies, though MLB has said it does not anticipate streaming from the stands will compete with television and has no plan to stop fans from using Meerkat and Periscope at ballparks.
Alex Riethmiller, an NFL spokesman, said the league will use the offseason to evaluate how the apps are used at sporting events before deciding how to police them. At the time of this year’s Super Bowl in February, neither Periscope nor Meerkat existed.
Two weeks ago, the PGA Tour became the first high-profile sports group to crack down on streaming when it stripped a freelance reporter’s media credential for the entire season after she used Periscope to interview a player during a practice round that was not televised.
Even in cases where streaming seems to pose little threat, leagues and teams might try to stop it now to protect themselves in the future, said Roger Noll, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research who has studied broadcast rights.
“What they are afraid of is missing out on the opportunity to commercialize something,” Noll said. “The live streams aren’t good now, but wait a few years. And even if an event isn’t televised today, it conceivably could be commercialized in the future.”
As private entities staging private events, sports teams and leagues have the right to limit or prohibit the use of services like Meerkat and Periscope, said Kate Klonick, a fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. But enforcing such rules could prove tricky from practical and public relations standpoints.
In a landmark decision, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled in 2013 that YouTube does not have to scour its website for copyrighted material; its only obligation is to remove videos when copyright owners submit requests for them to be taken down.
Klonick said that precedent probably means Meerkat, developed by a San Francisco startup called Life on Air, and Periscope, a Twitter-owned competitor, can’t be expected to immediately cut off sports feeds — especially because they deal with live video, rather than the recorded content that dominates YouTube.
A more drastic strategy would be to require fans and reporters to leave mobile devices at home. Augusta National Golf Club already slaps a lifetime ban on anyone who brings a phone onto the course during the Masters tournament. But such measures would undermine other social media marketing efforts and could prompt a backlash.
“It’s absolutely a balancing act,” Klonick said. “If the NFL does something that people really don’t like, for example, there can be huge repercussions.”
While some leagues fret about live streaming by fans and journalists, they are also exploring ways to leverage Meerkat and Periscope for their own benefit.
The PGA Tour has used Periscope to show player interviews conducted by a tour employee at least a half dozen times since revoking the credential of a reporter who did the same thing.
Major League Baseball recently coordinated setup of Periscope accounts for all 30 teams, and the Red Sox “are hoping to experiment with it in the coming months,” club spokeswoman Zineb Curran said.
The New England Revolution now regularly use Periscope to show pregame interviews and warmups and also streamed video of a meet and greet between players and US troops last week.
Game action is a different story, however. Major League Soccer and US Soccer charge ESPN, Fox, and Univision $90 million per year to broadcast games; streaming matches for free could devalue those rights.
The friendliest place in sports for Meerkat and Periscope users might be a National Women’s Soccer League game. With no TV rights deal to protect — though one is in the works, league spokesman Patrick Donnelly said — the NWSL currently has no restrictions on app usage.
The Boston Breakers have used Meerkat to show practice sessions, while the Seattle Reign, which streamed an entire preseason match on Periscope in March, appears to be the first professional sports franchise to do so.
If spectators want to do the same, no one will stop them.
“We’re always looking for ways to engage fans and add fans, and Periscope is one way to do that,” Donnelly said. “We see it as something that could help grow the game.”